For literature enthusiasts and film enthusiasts alike, there is one story with which everyone is more or less familiar: The Lord of the Rings.
It’s a tale of good versus evil that has withstood the test of time and remains one of the leading fantasy stories in fiction to date. J.R.R. Tolkien uses successful literary devices to bring his characters and story world to life.
And during the month of August, I’ll be talking all about Lord of the Rings, music, and composer Howard Shore! Every Tuesday and Saturday, I’ll be posting my overly organized thoughts on the music of LotR.
Without further ado, here we go…
So, What’s This Series All About?
In the 2001–2003 film adaptation of the trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, composer Howard Shore translates literary techniques to their musical counterparts, expanding on Tolkien’s story world.
Left to right: author J.R.R. Tolkien, composer Howard Shore, director Peter Jackson
In film, music substitutes for primary, secondary, and omniscient voice in narrative, but also much more. The techniques used in crafting literature, namely narration, foreshadowing, and character development, are translated to their musical counterparts in film scoring. To illustrate this idea, I will use the example of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the 2001–2003 Jackson film adaptation, looking primarily at the book trilogy’s literary techniques and the film trilogy’s score by Howard Shore. Shore demonstrates narration, foreshadowing, and character development, highlighting the prominence of certain themes and songs that are important to the story’s core, connecting ideas and characters to each other and giving a sense of satisfaction through aural immersion.
Epic, Myth, and Fairy-Stories
The first aspect of the story to understand is the plot. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of redemption, corruption, and the ultimate battle of good versus evil, highlighting the structural simplicity of traditional myth.
The trilogy follows Frodo, a creature called a hobbit, as he comes into possession of the magical One Ring, an extension of the dark lord Sauron’s soul. To save the world as he knows it, Frodo must travel to Mordor, where the Ring was forged, and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom. The journey takes him across the world and through many trials and dangers.
Fortunately, Frodo does not need to take this journey alone. The first installment of the trilogy follows a team of heroic creatures known as hobbits, humans, elves, dwarves, and wizards (who became known as the Fellowship of the Ring), as they struggle to carry the malevolent ring into Mordor, where they can destroy it.
The Fellowship is a variety of misfits, from the wise old wizard, Gandalf, to a mysterious outcast, Aragorn. The second installment follows each group of characters after the Fellowship has been broken and scattered across the world. Each small group must fight evil and survive the onslaught of darkness threatening to enslave their world. In the thrilling climax, the Fellowship comes together once more, if not physically then in spirit, to make the final push for the Ring’s destruction and for their survival. After a great deal of struggle and loss, the Ring is destroyed, Sauron is defeated, and the world of Middle-Earth is saved.
The story is captivating in its immersive quality, making it a suitable example of many literary devices, including techniques and deviations from traditional epic and fairy tale structure.
Tolkien is well-known for building his own languages, a talent that grew out of his love for language, a skill he used to strengthen his stories, creating fuller and more believable worlds. Tolkien is also well-known for his love of folklore and, by extension, folk songs. In a time when the fantasy genre was considered to be primarily for children or for an immature, unsophisticated audience, Tolkien recognized the value of fantasy to children and adults alike, and his passion for the subject is visible not only into his own stories but to others’ imaginations.
Scholar Estelle Jorgensen, author of “Music, Myth, and Education: The Case of The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy,” explains the difference between the epic and the fairy tale, sharing an explanation from writer and philosopher Susanne Langer, who voices an opinion on the fairy tale genre that Tolkien dealt with in his time. Langer’s Harvard education and writing experience both offered a unique view on the fairy tale and shaped her stance that, “fairy tales are a genre below that of myth in the continuum between dream and myth” (Jorgenson, 45).
…fairy tales are a genre below that of myth in the continuum between dream and myth.
– Estelle Jorgensen
According to Langer, myth explores deeper and more complicated human issues, while the fairy tale’s purpose is escapism. Conversely, Tolkien himself had a different viewpoint, in that, “he wishes his reader to see a similar serious mythic purpose within his fairy tale of The Lord of the Rings—namely, showing the contest between good and evil,” (Jorgenson, 45).
…he [Tolkien] wishes his reader to see a similar serious mythic purpose within his fairy tale of The Lord of the Rings—namely, showing the contest between good and evil.
– Estelle Jorgensen
Tolkien’s trilogy strongly emulates the structure of tragedy, which leads Shore to interpret situations with operatic motifs when adapted to film.
Tolkien, having an affinity for what he referred to as “fairy-stories,” shows his understanding of this story structure in his 1983 book of essays, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, saying that “a ‘fairy-story’ is one which touches and uses Faerie, whatever its main purpose may be…Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly translate to Magic” (Tolkien, 114).
…a ‘fairy-story’ is one which touches and uses Faerie, whatever its main purpose may be…Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly translate to Magic.
– J.R.R. Tolkien
In addition to Tolkien’s unique perspective on the fairy story, he also valued the idea of an epic that ended happily. Usually, epics of this scale end in tragedy, but Tolkien wanted to create an epic with a happy ending, calling it “eucatastrophe” instead of catastrophe (quoted in Jorgenson, 45). Tolkien uses elements of both genres to create an experience somewhere between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe” to describe a powerful, sudden, and joyful turning point in a story, a good sort of catastrophe, or a catastrophic relief.
The Lord of the Rings, then, is a fairy tale of mythic proportions.
And this fairy tale myth is what we’ll be focusing on for the rest of August! Let the journey begin…